The sell is classic Sir Richard Branson. ‘Virgin cruises are for people who hate cruises’ is one of the lines trotted out on board Scarlet Lady.
It could be another way of saying that the aim is to bring down the average age of those on board by a good two or three decades, although the company says it’s about attracting ‘the young at heart’.
Frankly, as the first journalist to board Scarlet Lady this week at Portsmouth, for a four-night cruise around the Channel, I was sceptical. Can a 17-deck leviathan costing £500 million — which will usually host around 2,700 passengers — really offer an edgy, adults-only experience?
Behemoth: Scarlet Lady, a 17-deck cruise ship costing £500 million, will usually host around 2,700 passengers
The cruise-liner, which is the first of four Virgin Voyages ships, is designed for the ‘young at heart’
Jane described the decor in Scarlet Lady’s ‘comfortable’ cabins as ‘a mix of Ikea and 1970s Habitat’. Pictured is a bedroom in a ‘rock star’ suite
The adults-only ship is being marketed towards people ‘who hate cruises’. Pictured is one of the bathrooms adjoining a suite
Yes and no. Boring buffets have been nudged aside by more than 20 restaurants and bars, many curated by Michelin-starred chefs (at no extra cost — all food, barring exotic extras such as a dollop of caviar, is part of the deal).
A ‘festival-like line-up’ of entertainment means it’s farewell tired old cabaret and hello aerial-combat circus and saucy sexology shows.
Wellness is big, with a boxing ring, basketball court, spin classes, ‘bungee yoga’ and a wrap-around running track. There’s even a tattoo parlour and record shop.
Wellness is big on the ship, with a boxing ring, basketball court, spin classes, and an outdoor swimming pool (pictured)
The ‘rock star’ suites, pictured, feature a turntable, a rider of only-red jelly bears and a bevy of guitars on the wall
Jane wasn’t impressed by the shower in her cabin, feeling shortchanged after she saw the ‘rock star’ suite version, pictured
The whole experience is controlled via the Virgin Voyages app, which has to be installed in advance. It kept crashing and, when I came to book restaurants and shows, all the good stuff seemed to be sold out. I wasn’t even on board and I was already grumpy.
Fair enough banging on about the boutique experience, but Scarlet Lady, the first of four Virgin liners, is a behemoth. Dwarfing the buildings at Portsmouth, and even the Navy’s largest aircraft carrier, it looks like a giant concrete car park with a bright red boil on top.
But inside it’s a different story. There’s a grand twist of a Hollywood staircase and glamour and glitz in the champagne and caviar bar. Turn a corner and it’s Miami pop art; round another and you’re walking through a tunnel of lights to a Studio 54-esque nightclub. It’s playful and inventive and I started to warm to the ship.
‘We’ve been on more than 60 cruises and this is definitely different,’ said Julie, in her 60s, from North London. ‘It’s quirky.’
All the crew were wearing masks, but probably only around 20 per cent of passengers. Not everyone felt the crowded nightclub and fitness classes were wise, and some people expressed disquiet at the enclosed hot spaces of the spa.
When it comes to dining, there is so much choice, says Jane, mostly served in American-style portions. Pictured is Razzle Dazzle Restaurant
Amenities include a tattoo parlour, a boxing ring, an aerial-combat circus and several shops (pictured)
Every restaurant aboard the Scarlet Lady has its own decor, lighting, music and mood. Pictured is The Wake restaurant
I was expecting fireworks in my cabin but, while comfortable, it didn’t make waves — the decor was a mix of Ikea and 1970s Habitat. The hammock on the balcony was a nice touch, but the bathroom was tiny.
Poking my nose into the ‘rock star’ suites, I felt a bit short-changed. Where was my turntable and bevy of guitars on the wall? I wanted a rider of only-red jelly bears, and by heck, I really wanted a shower I could get into without having to suck in my stomach.
Or maybe I just needed to shed a few pounds. The fitness facilities are impressive and you can get into most of them without too much hassle.
Buffets have been nudged aside by more than 20 restaurants and bars on the Scarlet Lady. Pictured is On The Rocks bar
All food, barring exotic extras such as caviar, is part of the deal. Pictured are diners at the Korean-themed Gunbae restaurant
The crew all wear uniforms, from bright red tailored dresses to relaxed Virgin T-shirts and slacks, or steel grey boilersuits.
Morning yoga was nicely paced and suitable for all levels of bendiness, but the star turn was the VHS workout.
Held in the nightclub, we donned neon leg warmers, headbands and scrunchies for an 1980s-inspired danceathon. Loved it.
High energy: The ship’s entertainment has left cabaret far behind. Instead, passengers can watch acrobatic dramas unfold
Scarlet Lady is running ‘cruisecations’ (without stops) out of Portsmouth until August 24 from £499. It will launch five-night Caribbean cruises from Miami on October 6 from £525. Prices include food, tips, most soft drinks, the majority of entertainment, group fitness classes and (very patchy) wifi (virginvoyages.com).
It’s a good job there’s exercise available because it’s nigh-on impossible not to over-indulge — there is so much choice, mostly served in American-style portions. Every restaurant has its own decor, lighting, music and mood.
The first night I tried Test Kitchen. Its six-course tasting menu looked pretty and came with theatrical thrusts (the trusty dome of steam), but the flavours didn’t really sing. On the other hand, Extra Virgin, the Italian restaurant, was a revelation — some of the best Italian food I’ve eaten outside Sicily.
Entertainment is predominantly free. My jaw hung open for much of the Romeo & Juliet-inspired acrobatic drama Duel Reality, in a mix of awe and terror that someone might die.
I missed the interactive sexologist show, but a 70-something couple said it was ‘quite something’, before wandering off hand in hand.
The ‘young at heart’ line sounds like a good idea, not least because the vast majority of guests were couples between 40 and 70.
‘The shows are good,’ said one seasoned cruiser. ‘But some of it is a bit wacky for me. I had to hide the sex kit in our cabin from my wife!’
He’s referring to the discreet black box in every cabin, called Time To Play. It’s a far cry from chocolates and towel art.
Branson likes to shoot for the stars and his first ship certainly is a novelty — but is it too different for seasoned cruisers, and not different enough to attract a new generation?